By Phoebe Lam
Day after day, article after article, our thoughts brim with an influx of details on an elusive virus and the unpredictability of life, a tsunami of information on our shores. Virginia Woolf, troubled with the new task of creating art after a war as devastating as World War I, also grappled with the issues of the world before her, particularly in “The Mark on the Wall,” a representation of the mind’s meandering trails.
However, the text also touches upon a purposeful note: to find a way to moor ourselves when life, thoughts, and the world threaten to submerge us. Permanency allows us to cope with the changeability of each new day, the fluctuating virus cases in each nation, and the paralysing fear of life. In light of a virus and death, of loss and uncertainty, we must search for our own marks on the wall to control our thoughts and turn back to nature’s order, following Woolf’s advice to seek permanence to keep from slipping into the apertures.
Woolf begins by describing life as “being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour” and tumbling headlong “like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office” (2506), painting it as a rapid whirlwind and illustrating the lack of predictability and control over the events of our lives. For the majority of us, this kind of uncertainty and tumultuous trajectory has become our new norm. We are caught between going back to school or work and the possibility of it being cancelled again, stuck in the haphazard hurricane of reliable and unreliable information tossed at us. It is in these moments where we must seek permanency, Woolf advises. She also accurately captures our streams of consciousness, “How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it” (2505), a kind of frantic, feverish jump from thought to thought that we can all relate to. With these authentic pictures of life and thought, Woolf subtly implies to us that a measure of control can alleviate stress, such as that of worldwide chaos and the terrifying prospect of leaving the house. Even when life barrels on at full speed, we cannot allow the disorienting change of schedules or the fear of the onslaught of information each day to drown us. We must find a berth to dock our boats when our thoughts turn turbulent.
Rather than drowning in a sea of thoughts, Woolf employs the symbolism of the mark on the wall to implore us to seek permanence. Throughout the text’s musings, the mark on the wall consistently grounds and protects the narrator from getting lost in abstract thoughts, “Indeed, now that I have fixed my eyes upon it, I feel that I have grasped a plank in the sea; I feel a satisfying sense of reality” because, compared to her convoluted thoughts, “Here is something definite, something real” (2509). Comparing the narrator’s circling back to the mark as “waking from a midnight dream of horror,” its assuring permanence causes her to “worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is proof of some existence other than ours” (2509). Whether by sticking to a new schedule of allotting some time each day for reading, cooking, or caring for family members, we need permanence, our own marks on the wall. Even the familiar routine of when to walk and feed your dog can help us keep our heads above the waves.
It is all about finding some form of fixity to avoid the changing waters of life and thought engulfing us completely. For Woolf, it was the snail on the wall. For us, it could be something just as simple—morning tea across Zoom calls in the morning, baking in the afternoon, dinners with family in the evening. It is up to us to find our sense of permanence, to find a constant point for us to return to whenever we float adrift. Living at this crux of whether we’ll be able to go back to school or work, or spend several weeks back at home is no small matter. Jokes of boredom, loneliness, and our collective struggle to remember the days is a fantastic way of coping, but we also need our own constants.
Seek permanence, Woolf instructs, in this daunting and uncertain time. Build yourself a dock to return to before we sink into spiralling thoughts and the fear of uncertainty, and the water closes over our heads.
Works CitedGreenblatt, Stephen Jay. The Norton Anthology of English Literature the Major Authors. W.W. Norton & Co., 2013.